009: Do you punish your child with rewards?

I’ve never said the words “good job” to my toddler. I was lucky – I stumbled on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards early enough that I was able to break the habit before my daughter had really done anything much that might be construed as requiring a “good job.”

I’m going to be absolutely transparent here and say that this episode draws very heavily on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, which – along with one of his other books, Unconditional Parenting, are a cornerstone of my approach to parenting. If you have time, you should absolutely buy the book and read it yourself. But assuming you don’t have the time for 300 pages of (really, very good) writing plus a hundred more of notes and references to explain why both physical and verbal rewards are just as harmful to your children as punishing them, this episode will help you to get to the crux of the issue much faster. I’ll also get into the research that Kohn draws on, as well as relevant research that’s been published since the book came out in 1993.

Kohn’s thesis is that saying “good job” is really no different than punishing your child, since rewards are essentially the same thing – stimuli designed to elicit a response.  He argues that while this approach is actually quite effective in the short term, not only is it not effective in the long term but it doesn’t mesh well with the kinds of relationships that many of us think or say we want to have with our children.


Birch, LL., Marlin, D.W., & Rotter, J. (1984). Eating as the ‘means’ activity in a contingency: Effects on young children’s food preferences. Child Development 55, 432-439. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1129954?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Brummelman, E., Tomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2014). On feeding those hungry for praise: Person praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology 143(1), 9-14.

Condry, J. (1977). Enemies of exploration: Self-initiated versus other-initiated learning. Personality and Social Psychology 35(7), 459-477.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine.

Eisenberger, R. & Rhoades, L. (2001). Incremental effects of reward on creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81(4), 728-741. DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.81.4.728

Gottfried, A.E., Fleming, J.S., & Gottfried, A.W. (1994). Role of parental motivational practices in children’s academic intrinsic motivation and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 86(1), 104-113.

Gray, P. (2016). Children’s natural ways of educating themselves still work: Even for the three Rs. In D.C. Geary & D.B. Berch (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (67-93). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Jeffery, R.W., Drewnowski, A., Epstein, L.H., Stunkard, A.J., Wilson, G.T., Wing, R.R., & Hill, D.R. (2000). Long-term maintenance of weight loss: Current status. Health Psychology 19(1 Suppl.), 5-16. DOI: 10.1037//0278-6133.19.1(Suppl.).5

Kazdin, A.E. (1982). The token economy: A decade later. Applied Behavior Analysis 15, 431-445. Full article available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1308287/

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (Affiliate link)

Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying “Good Job!”. Retrieved from: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/

Pomerantz, E.M., & Kempner, S.G. (2013). Mother’s daily person and process praise: Implications for children’s theory of intelligence and motivation. Developmental Psychology 49(1), 2040-2046.

Rietzschel, E.F., Zacher, H., & Stroebe, W. (2016). A lifespan perspective on creativity and innovation at work. Work, Aging and Retirement 2(2), 105-129.

Schwartz, B. (1982). Reinforcement-induced behavioral stereotypy: How not to teach people to discover rules. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 111(1), 23-59.


Subscribe to receive updates on new blog posts and podcast episodes!

You have Successfully Subscribed!


  1. Jeremy on July 16, 2018 at 3:53 PM

    We are conditioned to saying ‘good job’ so much. My main worry is that my child becomes conditioned by those around her. How many ‘good jobs’ is too many? What if she picks up on other parents saying ‘good job’ and feels punishment if I don’t say it. Is it too late then?

    I love the thought behind this podcast and its ideal nature, but I simply am not sure about the practicality of doing this.

    • Jen Lumanlan on July 16, 2018 at 5:25 PM

      Hi Jeremy – I don’t think anyone has an idea about how many ‘good jobs’ are too many. It’s such an ingrained part of our culture that someone is going to say it to your child. When my daughter was two, I would email the director of our preschool when I overheard a teacher saying “good job” several times…once she got to about three, it was easier to have conversations with her directly about it. Sometimes she would ask me if I thought she did a good job, or she would say “good job, Mama!”. I would ask her what she thought it means when someone says “good job” to her and she would say “it means they thought I did it well,” and I would say “well, I think it’s more important that you think you did it well, which is why I don’t say “good job” to you. Is that OK with you?” and usually she would say “yes.” Now she very rarely says it.

      There are so many other ways to express your interest in your child’s work and that you are proud of them – you can ask about a specific aspect of their work how they did a difficult part of it, or you could say “you’ve been working on that for so long and you figured out how to do it!”. To me, Good Job is a bit of a lazy way to avoid having to think too much about what to say to your child, which is why it’s an easy habit to fall into! It’s more difficult to think about a specific thing to comment on regarding your child’s work, but you might find that having that conversation deepens your relationship and expresses your interest in their work to a far greater extent than Good Job does. Hope this helps!

  2. Jeremy on July 16, 2018 at 7:15 PM

    It does, thank you!

    I know it is going to be quite difficult for me, being the quiet stoic type (ie Ron Swanson). Using as few words as possible is quite common for me.

    Our little one is 8 months old, and every time she learns a new skill, my immediate reaction is, of course, ‘Good Job or Yay’. I will have to learn to channel that excitement into inquisition and interest.

    She’s obviously not conversing yet, but I can tell she understands. Going to have to work hard on this one.

    Thanks again!

    • Jen Lumanlan on July 17, 2018 at 3:55 AM

      No problem! I can sympathize with you being the stoic type…a lifetime ago my career goal was to be a ranger for the National Park Service so I could sit in the middle of a remote park and yell at people for not having permits:-) Still drives me nuts when my husband calls a friend in the morning about plans for the afternoon and concludes with “OK; let’s talk later…” – why not just set up the plans NOW and save time and not have to discuss it again??!

      You don’t have to say a ton to get your appreciation across; you’re actually inviting more words from her by asking a short simple question. It’s definitely more mental effort, but you can do it! Good job!!

  3. Lena on August 20, 2018 at 7:46 PM

    To me the lesson is that we should avoid saying things like “good job” if our motive is to manipulate our child by using positive reinforcement in order to get them to repeat the desired “behavior”. If our child does something well and we are simply being happy for them then that is an entirely different situation.

    • Jen Lumanlan on September 1, 2018 at 7:25 PM

      Hi Lena – I agree that there is a difference between saying “good job” for the sake of deliberate manipulation, but I think there are much more productive things you can say than “good job” when you aren’t saying it for that reason – something that helps the child understand that you appreciate what they did for you, or that you acknowledge how hard they worked on it, for example. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Alfie Kohn on this topic!

Leave a Comment